Renewable power has taken up a record share of global electricity production since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to areview of data, suggesting a transition away from polluting fossil fuels could be accelerated.
However, before governments take decisions based on recent experiences, they will have to answer various questions, says Michelle Manook, chief executive of the World Coal Association, a lobby group for the industry. These include how the system would have coped in winter, when sunshine is at a premium, or how it will manage when the economy picks up and demand gathers pace. Ms Manook suggests a carbon-free electricity system "is not currently attainable".
The recent boost for wind and solar power came for all the wrong reasons: the health crisis has tipped the world into recession, pushing down electricity usage by more than a fifth in some countries, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA). Most grid operators automatically turned to the cheapest energy supplies to meet the falling demand. Wind and solar power cost very little to generate once the installations are built and are often backed by government mandates and subsidies. As a result, more expensive fossil fuel sources were the first to be pulled.
Data from Finnish energy technology group Wartsila, collated from Europe’s electricity grid operators, shows renewables generated an average of 44% of power across the 27-nation bloc and Britain from April to June, when many countries were in lockdown, against 37.2% in the same period last year. Daily peaks hit 53%.
The leading performer was Austria which saw renewables average 93% from a previous 91%, thanks largely to hydropower, the data showed. Portugal saw its share of renewable energy surge to 67% from 49%, while in Europe’s biggest economy Germany it averaged 54% up from 47.5%. Such figures weren't expected for another decade.
The increase in the share of renewables is essential if the European Union wants to achieve its climate and energy goals and cut harmful greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change.
The EU’s target is to meet 32% of its energy needs, including transport, from renewable sources by 2030, but will review these goals later this year. EU Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said the increase of renewables is "encouraging".
Britain’s National Grid (NG.L) set itself a target of being able to operate a completely carbon-free electricity system by 2025, which it says would be the world’s first. The coronavirus lockdown provided an early test, with renewables hitting a peak share of 67.5% of electricity in May. The country also went without coal power for 67 days from April 10 to June 16 – the longest such stretch since 1882. While clean power is increasingly available, storing it and ensuring a smooth supply remains complicated. Winds die down, clouds cover the sun, or, alternatively, gales can blow on bright, sunny days.
The grid managed fluctuations by relying, in part, on a tool called “demand-side response” (DSR), said Julian Leslie, head of networks at National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO). DSR asks users to time their consumption to match power generation – something that can ease pressure on the grid and reduce costs for consumers.
In India, a sunlight storage system is in place. In 2017, officials started asking farmers in some regions to water fields in the daytime to make use of higher solar and wind output, a power ministry official in New Delhi said.
They had previously been expected to irrigate late at night or in the evening to preserve power supplies during the day for other industries.
As elsewhere in the world, the share of renewable energy in India’s electricity market climbed during the Covid-19 lockdown, hitting a record high of 30.9% in the week of June 15 from 17.9% in mid-March, the IEA said.
While Britain’s DSR system of matching power generation with consumption provides some relief to grids, it is not a panacea. The grid has regularly had to fall back on so-called 'curtailments', paying power producers to shut down when electricity supply is too high and risks disturbing operations. The firm said it expected to pay out £826m in costs from May to August, more than double than in the same period last year. It did not give a breakdown but said curtailments made up a “significant proportion” of this.
The United States is a world leader when it comes to storage, notably battery technology, and some businesses are investing heavily in the sector.
Renewables, including hydro, wind and solar, provided 23% of US electricity during the April lockdown, up from 17% in the same period of 2019, latest U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) data shows. The peak share rose to almost 80% in parts of the windy interior of the country.
President Donald Trump’s administration warned that too large an increase in the use of renewables on the grid will reduce its resilience against weather-related disruptions. It says coal plants serve a crucial role in reliability because they can store large amounts of fuel on-site. Looking to at least partially address this problem, California, which has the most installed solar capacity of any US state, hopes to more than quadruple its battery capacity by year-end, to just over 900 megawatts.
Anne Gonzales, a spokeswoman for the California Independent System Operator, which maintains the state’s grid, says battery facilities are normally placed next to solar plants and can be used to extend output from the sites beyond sundown.
Keen to encourage the development of battery technology, the British government said on July 14 it was cutting red tape and relaxing planning rules to make it easier to launch large-scale energy storage projects. Such incentives will be needed elsewhere, if governments want to build on recent experiences and boost renewable energy.